The use of augmented reality in advertising was novel in February, when General Electric incorporated it into its Super Bowl campaign to demonstrate its Smart Grid technologies. Since then, a number of other executions have occurred, the latest being Wal-Mart's Your Zone 3D, which aims to get the company's new line of furniture in front of teens and moms.
Launched in mid-July as part of a campaign that includes TV, print and banner ads, consumers are invited to visit the site and flash a marker in front of their Web cams to see an AR show that incorporates animated images of Wal-Mart's new furniture into a virtual room environment.
"Wal-Mart has a new teen line and they needed to get the word out in a special way," said Sissy Estes, associate creative director at The Martin Agency, which created the campaign that was produced for the Web by Neo-Pangea. "When teens enter the room, they see the furniture line and can explore different combinations, so it's a way to preview the whole line."
Visitors see different combinations by rotating the marker in front of the Web cam that shifts the scene in the room to show the furniture from different angles. "You tilt the room left and right and the skateboard at the bottom of the page moves along with the momentum of gravity," said Brett Bagenstose, creative director at Neo-Pangea.
The AR scene was created using 3D models of the furniture that were animated with 3D modeling software and rendered with Flash and Papervision. Bagenstose said 11 different room set-ups were shot to show all the products, which were skinned with fabrics available in the line. The scene loops continuously and all the content can be viewed in three minutes.
He distinguished AR content from video content because "it's rendered in real time as opposed to pre-rendered video. The user rotates it in real time through every angle. Viewers hold the environment in their hands so they can see the details and interact with the product."
The markers were inserted into print ads that ran in mid-July and August issues of Family Fun, Family Circle and People magazines. They can also be printed from the Web site.
"Augmented reality was the way to go, because the tech attracts teens and moms can shop along," Estes said.
The number of AR executions is growing. After GE launched what may have been the first American execution in February; Proctor & Gamble used AR content to promote Always Infinity feminine pads; Best Buy used it to support Twelp Force, a Twitter based tech service; the United States Postal Service used it to demonstrate Priority Mail Shipping boxes; Topps used it to showcase its playing cards; and Papa John's posted markers on its pizza boxes to play virtual cross country road trips.
It's too early to say how popular Wal-Mart's AR execution has been. GE reported its offering was viewed by one million unique users in the first seven months and was featured on YouTube, Twitter and Flickr. AKQA, which created the USPS execution, reported 47,000 views since June 8.
Viewing is limited because of the low number of Web cams, with 18 percent of the nation's 68.5 million broadband households having them, according to Parks Associates. But the number grows with every computer purchase.
Employing AR content in advertising "is a gimmick, but anything you can do to draw people's attention is valuable because consumers pay less and less attention to advertising these days," said Debra Aho Williamson, an eMarketer analyst. "But it also shows we're moving to a media world in three dimensions. Kids and teens are very savvy, spending a lot of time in virtual environments with 3D dimensions, so we're pushing in that direction."
But she wonders how many times a consumer will be willing to flash a marker in front of a Web cam to see AR content. New AR applications that move away from the desktop to mobile and wearable displays like eyeglasses have been announced.
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